This occasional series focuses on members of the Frontier Fields team. It highlights the individuals, their jobs, and the paths they took to get to where they are today.
Astronomer Gabriel Brammer answers questions about his role on the Frontier Fields program and the path he took to get there.
What does a typical day on the job entail? What are your responsibilities?
A typical day involves a lot of communication: e-mail and teleconferencing with scientific collaborators around the U.S. and around the world, assisting observers with preparing their Hubble observations, and conversations and meetings with fellow members of the Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 instrument team. My research focuses on the formation and evolution of distant galaxies, often using Hubble observations. I have a position that allows me to pursue my own independent research interests along with my responsibilities supporting Hubble operations, and I appreciate that the goals of both of these aspects of my work are closely aligned.
What specifically is your educational background?
I obtained a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
How did you first become interested in space?
My favorite subjects in school were always math and science, particularly physics when I was a bit older. Reading Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” in high school always sticks with me as being a defining moment in inspiring my interest in space science and astronomy. Sagan presents such a clear connection between the beauty of the subject and the rigorous science that underlies it; I’ve seen from other profiles of my colleagues similar to this one that I’m far from alone in finding inspiration there!
Was there someone (parent, teacher, spouse, sibling, etc.) or something (book, TV show, lecture, etc.) that influenced you in developing a love for what you do, or the program you’re a part of?
The pursuit of an advanced degree in astronomy, or any field, is a very long chain that stretches over 20 years of a student’s life, obviously including a dramatic evolution in his or her own personal development and maturity. From day one I’m grateful for the tireless love, support, and encouragement from my parents and family, and I have had many excellent teachers, mentors, and role models at all stages of my education and career. Each of them represents a strong link in that chain, and without any one of them individually, the path I would have taken would likely have been very different from the one I am happy and honored to be on today.
Was there a particular event (e.g., lunar landing, first Shuttle flight, etc.) that particularly captured your imagination and led to life changes?
The bright appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in the winter of 1997, my junior year of high school, was a formative event for me at an opportune moment. Seeing the bright comet, a transient visitor from the outer solar system, just hanging over the horizon captivated me. As often as I could, I would drag the small telescope my dad had recently bought, along with as many friends I could muster, out to the cold, dark skies of central Iowa to see it.
Later in the summer of ’97, I went to New England to tour potential colleges, where, during a short visit to Williams College, I met Professor Jay M. Pasachoff and his students who were preparing an expedition to observe the solar eclipse in Aruba the following year. That brief encounter, along with the recent experience observing Hale-Bopp, showed me that studying astronomy would offer an ideal combination of research in the physical sciences and travel to exotic locales to observe both aesthetically and scientifically magnificent phenomena. I was privileged to later study and research with Professor Pasachoff myself, including an unforgettable expedition to observe the solar eclipse in Lusaka, Zambia, in 2001.
Gabe checks out the telescope for observations of the June 21, 2001, total solar eclipse from Lusaka, Zambia, as part of the Williams College Eclipse Expedition. Credit: J. Pasachoff.
How did you first get started in the space business?
My first experience visiting and working at a professional astronomical observatory was with the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in 2001. I must say I was pretty miserably exhausted my first night observing up on the mountain top, ready to adjust my career plans at 4 a.m., with the local radio reminding us between cumbia (dance music) hits of the glacial progress of time — “son las cuatro con cinco minutes … son las cuatro con diez minutos.” I suppose the second night was a bit better, and by the third night I was hooked.
I’ve been working at observatories ever since, now having spent something like 270 nights observing the skies from mountain tops in Arizona (Kitt Peak) and Chile (Cerros Tololo, Las Campanas, and Paranal) to valleys in Japan (Nobeyama). Going outside at night at one of these observatories and seeing the eyes of giant telescopes staring up at the sky, gathering in photons from distant objects, is an extraordinary experience. I’m happy to now have a more normal sleep schedule at the Space Telescope Science Institute, but I appreciate still being close to the day-to-day operations of Hubble as an observatory and working on the front lines as photons from distant stars and galaxies hit the detectors.
A composite image of sunset and midnight at the Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile. Each of the four domes houses a telescope with a primary mirror 8.2 meters (26.9 feet) in diameter. Credit: Gabriel Brammer.
What do you think of the Hubble results, or the impact that Hubble has on society?
Even classmates in my kids’ pre-kindergarten classes know Hubble when they see it! Hubble has something for everybody, from atmospheres of extra-solar planets to the most distant galaxies, and therefore has had an immeasurable impact on society’s scientific imagination and curiosity.
Is there a particular image or result that fascinates you?
To me the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field /eXtreme Deep Field (HUDF/XDF) represents all of the past success of Hubble and points to the future potential of Hubble and its successors like the James Webb Space Telescope in a single image. Now including near-infrared observations by the Wide Field Camera 3, installed in 2009, the HUDF/XDF shows us galaxies across some 95 percent of cosmic history, from the first star-bursting seeds of galaxies to the assembly of more massive, more regular structures of galaxies more like those we see today. The Frontier Fields represent the most recent exciting extension of the legacy begun with the Hubble Deep and Ultra-Deep Fields.
The eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, was assembled by combining 10 years of NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The XDF is a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full Moon. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team.
I also love browsing through Hubble’s spectacular high-resolution images of nearby galaxies. In the deep fields, we generally infer properties of galaxies based on small, barely resolved images of their structures, while images of local galaxies such as the mosaic of M82 show many of the myriad processes that form and shape galaxies in exquisite detail. It is through the combination of these resolved nearby studies and distant surveys that Hubble has made such a large contribution in our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve.
This mosaic image from Hubble of the magnificent starburst galaxy Messier 82 (M82) is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of this galaxy. M82 is remarkable for its bright blue disk, webs of shredded clouds, and fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI), and P. Puxley (National Science Foundation)
Are there specific parts of the program that you’re proud to have contributed to?
I am happy to have helped make the Frontier Fields observations as deep and as efficient as possible to maximize the scientific return from extremely valuable observing time on Hubble. With only a relatively minor change to the observing strategy, taking extra care to avoid extra glare from bright foreground light from the Earth, we enabled the Frontier Fields to see ever fainter and more distant galaxies than otherwise would have been possible.
Photo taken by Gabe of Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile (December 22, 2011). Credit: Gabriel Brammer.
Also see “Spotlight on Jennifer Mack, Research and Instrument Scientist,”
“Spotlight on Dan Coe, ESA/AURA Astronomer,” and Spotlight on Tricia Royle, Senior Program Coordinator.”